In today s Science section of the NYTimes, Well columnist Tara Parker-Pope discusses a fear that, to some patients, is greater than the nausea and vomiting that accompanies most chemotherapy: hair loss. Although it is not often discussed in health and science circles, hair loss can be profoundly upsetting to people who are already experiencing severe stress. Hair loss is, in fact, is often one of the first questions asked of oncologists by women after being told of the diagnosis and the treatment plan.
Her article Keeping Your Hair In Chemo, provides some hope for patients.
Ms. Parker-Pope went to the Weill-Cornell Breast Center in New York, one of the few NYC locales where such hair-preservation techniques are available. (It is much more widely available in Europe).
The article states:
The hair-saving treatment, widely used in Europe, requires a specialized frozen cap worn tightly on the head before, during and for a couple of hours after a chemotherapy session. The method can be time consuming, expensive and uncomfortable, but numerous women swear by the results.
I had the wig ready, but I never had to use it, said Eileen Bruno, 50, of Westwood, N.J., who last year completed chemotherapy and cold cap treatment while maintaining her full head of thick, blond hair.
Ms. Bruno learned of the cold-cap treatment through friends, and gained the support of her doctors at the Weill Cornell Breast Center in New York... The hospital has made space for a special medical freezer that keeps the caps ready at the right temperature, donated by the Minneapolis nonprofit group The Rapunzel Project. Patients can also stay in the infusion area after chemotherapy ends to finish the cold-cap treatment.
Ms. Bruno used the Penguin Cold Cap, which is essentially an ice pack fitted tightly on the head like a swim cap. The cold caps, which are rented for about $600 a month for a set of caps, must be kept frozen and changed quickly every half-hour. Many women enlist friends or family members to help them quickly change and refreeze the caps as needed.
Another type of freezing cap is called the DigniCap, which is somewhat less labor-intensive to use. While these devices are not yet FDA-approved, several medical centers here in the US, led by UCSF, are conducting studies which they hope will lead to FDA approval and subsequent insurance coverage (the technique runs around $2,000 without coverage). Among a total of about 220 women, most women who used a scalp-cooling cap kept most of their hair, said Dr. Hope Rugo, the director of breast oncology at U.C.S.F., who led the research.
There is at least one downside:
Women who have used the Penguin cold caps say they can be heavy and the first few minutes of freezing can be excruciating. They wrap themselves in electric blankets, socks and sweaters to endure the treatment, which is given concurrently with chemotherapy and generally adds a few hours of treatment to a chemo session.
Dr. Gil Ross says, It is bad enough to have to endure the side effects of cancer chemotherapy, which can be severe. Although hair loss may seem unimportant compared to saving lives, it is profoundly upsetting nonetheless. Every look in the mirror robs you of whatever time you may have when you are not thinking about your disease. And no one wants to walk around knowing that when people see you without hair, many will automatically think cancer.